Almanac

Schools - May 29, 2013

Parents push for Mandarin immersion program

• Menlo Park City School District already offers popular Spanish immersion classes.

by Renee Batti

With China on a path to becoming the largest economy in the world, the interest in teaching children in the United States the Mandarin language is also growing apace. And given the climate of business innovation that keeps Silicon Valley a key player in the global economy, why shouldn't local schools offer Mandarin immersion programs to prepare kids for the global marketplace many of them will be competing in?

That's a question local parent Carol Cunningham is raising in the Menlo Park City School District, where she has been leading an effort to add such a program to the district's offerings. The effort, she told the school board at a recent meeting, is supported by more than 50 families, with about 80 children among them, and that support "is steadily growing."

Mandarin language programs are now offered as an elective at La Entrada Middle School in the Las Lomitas district and as an after-school program at Oak Knoll Elementary School in the Menlo Park City district. Mandarin instruction is also offered at the private Menlo School and Sacred Heart Prep in Atherton.

But there is no immersion program offered in the local public schools, and Ms. Cunningham, born in the United States of Chinese ancestry, believes such an intensive program is the best way to learn a second language. Within several years, an immersion program leads to full literacy in both English and the second language, she said in an interview with the Almanac.

The Menlo Park district has a popular Spanish immersion program, which it launched in 2008, "so the value of learning foreign language, especially in an immersion setting, has already been recognized and a foundation established in the district," Ms. Cunningham said. "We just want to expand this program to add Mandarin as another language option."

China and the Mandarin language will play an increasing role in "the bigger, global picture," Ms. Cunningham said. "We want our children to not only compete, but to excel and prosper in a 21st century global economy. This is a message we've heard throughout this district and others, and requires innovative, strategic, and forward-thinking leadership, which the district has already demonstrated."

Ms. Cunningham has met with district Superintendent Maurice Ghysels, and with individual board members, advocating for the immersion program. Both Mr. Ghysels and school board President Terry Thygesen said the district is willing to consider such a program in the context of developing a long-term "strategic vision" for the district — a process that is likely to begin in October.

Creating a new language program can't be done in isolation, Mr. Ghysels said. "I am still defining how we will take the holistic look at the entirety of our curriculum and instruction programs that is necessary to help provide a coherent framework for decision-making and resource allocation," he said in an email.

At the May 13 school board meeting, Ms. Cunningham was joined by four other parents urging the board to support Mandarin immersion in the district, emphasizing the importance of learning a language at a young age, and noting that Mandarin — the national language of China, Taiwan and Singapore — is spoken by 1.1 billion people worldwide.

Ms. Cunningham, who has two preschool-age sons, told the Almanac that many of the supporting families have children who will be entering the school district in a few years, and would like to be able to enroll them from the start in a Mandarin immersion program. "In order to enter immersion, you must enroll the child at the kindergarten or first-grade level," she said.

She and other parents have researched possibilities for such a program, and believe "it could be designed to be cost-neutral," with only minor costs for teacher development and textbooks, she said.

In addition to the Mandarin immersion effort, some parents are also pushing for a Mandarin language elective at Hillview Middle School. Vivien Fitzhugh said she helped create the after-school Mandarin program at Oak Knoll last fall.

"When I was working on this project, I found out there are a lot of students at different ages/grades from our school district (who) are already attending Chinese classes either in other after-school programs, Saturday schools, or with private teachers," she said in an email.

"I believe there has been an increase in demand in Chinese language classes because parents are aware of global changes," she said, adding that learning Mandarin "will be helpful to preparing our kids for the future, economically and socially."

Ms. Fitzhugh said she has spoken briefly with Hillview Principal Erik Burmeister, as well as with Superintendent Ghysels and Allison Liner, the district's chief learning officer, about offering middle school students Mandarin language instruction, and that she and a group of parents plan to have future discussions on the matter.

Woodside High School offers Mandarin language instruction, and an effort is under way by parents to persuade Menlo-Atherton High School officials to add a program to that school's curriculum, Ms. Cunningham said.

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